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David Stephenson

Star Drawing 2006/3 (E + SSW + NNW, 20/8/2006, Central Australia)  2006

chromogenic print, framed

frame 132 × 165.6 × 6cm

Museum of Contemporary Art, donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by Anne MacDonald, 2013


About the Artwork

In the series Star Drawings, David Stephenson maps the movement and the liminal effect of starlight on the photographic negative at night. He travelled to the vast Central Australian desert to capture these works, for which each title documents the coordinates of his exposures. The pictures are taken with multiple, long exposures that trace delicate whirling lines of light, marking the subtle passage of time as the stars wheel their silent course through the sky. The works are pure abstraction, an almost formal investigation of black and white patterning, their title the only marker of their relationship to the world. Part of the beauty of these works is in the subtle tonal variations of the white lines of light traced by the stars as they sweep space. Upon close inspection almost imperceptible colours emerge to reveal the colour spectrum of the rainbow.

The photographs, taken by overlaying as many as 72 multiple exposures, trace the rotation of the earth as it moves through the galaxy. The lineaments of light drawn by the stars create complex patterns with affinities to manmade works, such as the traditional forms of oriental rugs and mandalas or the geometric structures of domes and vaults. This light is itself ancient and primordial, thrown by distant – perhaps long dead – stars tens of thousands of years ago from galaxies far, far away. In this sense, as Stephenson states, his camera was not only recording the present moment ‘but also looking back into time, using light originating from distant prehistory’.[1] Stephenson has spent over 40 years using his camera to capture what he calls ‘the photographic sublime’; a record of the infinite and transcendent in the natural and built worlds. From the oculi and domes of sacred architecture to night-time skies, clouds and the ice of Antarctica, his photographs seek to understand the limits of human perception and comprehension.

[1] ‘Film stars: Australian photographs capture prehistoric light at AGNSW’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 May 2015.

Star drawings uses a photographic description of the 'real’ world as a starting point only. This literal description of the world is then manipulated through a specifically photographic procedure, multiple exposure, to create a dense layering of the vastness of time and space, which, for me, gets as close to an evocation of the sublime as any of my photographs.

David Stephenson, 2015

David Stephenson

– About the artist

Born 1955, Washington DC, United States. Lives and works Hobart, Tasmania.

David Stephenson emigrated from the USA to Tasmania to take up a teaching position at the University of Tasmania School of Art in 1982. He continues to live and work in Hobart. Stephenson’s work has focused on the aesthetics of environmental representation through the use of photography and video art. Through extended projects he has explored cosmological and technological manifestations of the sublime in subjects including the Tasmanian environment, the Antarctic landscape, star-filled skies, sacred architecture, hydro-electric developments and global cityscapes. His works are marked by a sense of self-deliberation; they evoke notions of the sublime and man’s capacity to pass time.

In 1982 the largest conservation battle ever fought in Australia took place over the damming of the Franklin River. This was also the year that Stephenson emigrated from Washington, USA, to Hobart, Tasmania. A year earlier, as a recent art-school graduate, Stephenson produced a photographic series called New Monuments. In these works, industrial structures invaded the natural world; they depict controversial oil pipelines, the Californian Hetch Hetchy hydro scheme and the Stanislaus River being flooded. Stephenson used the word ‘monument’ in the series title to suggest that these manmade structures stand today as man’s equivalent to monuments of the ancient world. Following his arrival in Australia, Stephenson depicted the endangered coast of Tasmania, its rivers and hydro-electric schemes.

In a career spanning four decades, Stephenson’s art has been exhibited extensively nationally and internationally. Solo exhibitions include Transcendence: Photographs by David Stephenson, Monash Gallery of Art and regional tour (2011-15); Light Cities, Julie Saul, New York (2011); Vaults, Julie Saul, New York (2007); and Sublime Space: photographs by David Stephenson, National Gallery of Victoria (1998). Group exhibitions include Lost in Landscape, Museo de Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Italy (2014); Australia: Land and Landscape, Royal Academy of Arts, London (2013); Geomorphometries: Contemporary Terrain, Queensland Centre for Photography, Brisbane (2012); In the Balance, MCA, Sydney (2010); Shared Sky, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (2009); and Ingenuidades: Fotografia e Engenharia 1846–2006, Galeria de Exposições Temporårias da Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon and Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels (2007).

Stephenson’s work is represented in many public and private collections including all major Australian institutions and many international museums, such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Three monographs have been published on Stephenson’s work. Of these, two are authored by Stephenson with Princeton Architectural Press: Visions of Heaven: The Dome in European Architecture (2005) and Heavenly Vaults: From Romanesque to Gothic in European Architecture (2009). David Stephenson: Sublime Symmetries, a French/English-language monograph on Stephenson’s work by Jorge Calado, accompanied Stephenson’s retrospective at the Gulbenkian Cultural Centre in Paris in 2006.

Learn more
– Other collection works by the artist

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